20th Century Fox, ©2009
Another world. Breathtaking landscapes, iridescent color, a new culture and people; a place unspoiled by man’s destructive influence and greed. Welcome to Pandora, a planet designed by three-time Oscar winner James Cameron and celebrated by audiences worldwide. With his recent release, Avatar, Cameron has captured the hearts of viewers and left them pining for a way of life that is not only unreal but also deeply misguided.
To begin with, Avatar’s portrayal of our world is harsh and unflattering. Although it is true that our modern culture is often selfish and depraved, Cameron intentionally strips all the light from society and paints a picture that is cold, rigid, and unfeeling. He does this in order to provide a sharp contrast to the vibrant, pulsing, wild and colorful world (in 3D no less) of Pandora and to bring to our attention the beauty and innocence of the Na’vi people when compared with our own cynical and disrespectful race.
Our protagonist Jake rolls onto Pandora in a wheelchair and is welcomed by mocking soldiers, towering robots and a bleak, gray landscape. In fact, every scene is virtually colorless until Jake steps outside in his avatar body for the first time. His exuberance is contagious as he begins to run, unsteadily at first, overwhelmed with excitement at the strength in his legs and overjoyed with his sudden escape into freedom. Grace Augustine hands him a plump fruit which he bites into with abandon as juice trickles down his chin. All this is contrasted with the cold atmosphere of the human world where heartless individuals relentlessly seek after Unobtainium, regardless of the harm they cause to the Na’vi in the process. In fact, in one of the most striking scenes of the film, Colonel Quarich sips his coffee in a carefree manner while his pilot drops explosives and destroys the Na’vi home.
There is a purpose behind Cameron’s decision to portray our world in this way. He artfully includes a blatant western spiritualist message that is overpowering at times, though always alluring. The Na’vi are deeply spiritual, worshipping Eywa and at one with the world, connected to all that breathes and aware of the ebb and flow of energy around them. This seems to be the source of their profound yet simple peace and strength. In contrast, humanity is seen as bitter, cynical, greedily opportunistic, and heartless, striving after fulfillment but never really attaining it. Cameron seeks to open our eyes to mankind’s need for a higher purpose in life by allowing us to walk alongside Jake as he is slowly changed and awakened by the beliefs of the Na’vi people. As he discovers his new strength and vitality Jake becomes less impressed by our world and eventually fully commits to the Na’vi tribe and leaves behind his crippled body and mind. The closing scene of the film leaves us wishing we could do the same, shedding the mindset and surroundings of our hurting world and exchanging them for the free, simple, and peacefully unhindered life offered on Pandora.
Sadly, this transition is not possible. Nevertheless, audiences are left pining for a more enhanced spiritual and physical life, utterly disenchanted with the world around them. This was Cameron’s purpose. Avatar’s message is designed to shake us out of our culture’s self-infatuation and greed and to make us revere and even worship the natural world around us instead.
In the closing scenes of the movie the (human) “aliens” return to their “dying world” (earth). And we are left with a choice. Will we follow? Or will we join the Na’vi in seeking a higher spiritual reality in our surroundings, embracing the spiritualist view that our essence and purpose can be found in the worship of the earth around us?
After only being in theaters less than two months Avatar got the attention of over 200 million people. Avatar is a movie set in the future about two worlds colliding. A corporation tries to mine a rare mineral on the planet and ends up clashing with the peace-loving natives there.
The story is like that of Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas,except instead of First Nation people there are 7-foot tall, blue-skinned people-like beings called the Na'vi. Even with a predictable plot, there is much more behind the meaning than what meets the eye. Movies are made with a point in mind. There are many different messages portrayed in this movie.
First, the message of anti-technology is shown in this film. Some accuse the movie itself of being highly anti-technology. However, only part of the humans, which include the big corporate and military people wanted to use technology for their selfish gains. The scientists, on the other hand, wanted to use technology to get to know the indigenous inhabitants. (And of course, the film itself incorporates state-of-the-art cinematic technology.)
Secondly, the movie contrasts two different cultures. It contains a “retrospective condemnation of the ‘white man’s’ treatment of North American First Nations people” in its plotline. The corporation and military behave in ways comparable to the Europeans’ reactions when they encountered the new world; all they really cared about was for their own greedy land-grabbing, not in making peaceful, cooperative relationships with the indigenous people. Some critics further assert that the movie attempts to “reflect the cruelness of western.” The movie is especially critical of the corporate and military branches of western society. The director “only condemns a destructive culture which has made people becoming ignorant by losing the respect for what is beauty, what is sacred and even what is a peaceful life.”
This leads to a third message portrayed in this movie, that of western spiritualism. Accordingly, all living things in nature are connected and those that take advantage of nature will be destroyed. Even the meanings of some of the names reflect the spiritual worldview of this movie. For example, avatar are “divine beings who view the sacredness of all life and the soul of all beings as eternal - meant for freedom and made of divine essence,” The Indian term for avatar means “one who comes to open the way for humanity to a higher consciousness.” In popular Hinduism and some modern cults people worship “avatars,” i.e. “one who descends” (incarnated) or “manifestations (literally ‘descendents’) of god that periodically intervene to fight evil and ensure that the universe functions in accordance with dharma.”
The movie Avatar picks up on some of these Hindu elements, which believes in the essential unity of all reality including people, animals, and plants. There are many similarities with Hindu teachings, symbols and concepts and the movie Avatar. The main belief of Hinduism is that there is a single energy source which is thought to be god or Brahman. All living and non-living things result from this source. This is like the Na’vi who believe they are connected with the energy source of all things. The Na’vi believe in a benevolent goddess called Eywa who is their guiding force and deity of Pandora. This is very similar to the way pagans view Gaia and the way some believe we are connected through the mother god. The movie shows a strong connection between the tree and the people through the holding of hands.
Some of the characters also have names that sound Indian or Hindu like Ikran and Neytri which in Hindi sounds similar to 'netri,' meaning 'eyes. Another association between the movie and Hinduism is the chanting of mantras which are “symbolic sounds causing internal vibration which helps to concentrate the mind and aids self-realization.” This is very similar to what the Na’vi were doing in their worship and calling on their goddess. It is believed that chanting a specific phrase helped to liberate or set free, as Hinduism and Buddhism believe.
Another striking aspect is the use of the color blue. In the book Introduction to World Religions, the photographs depict many Hindu gods in blue. A site online said that “blue is the color of the infinite and symbolizes immeasurable and all pervading reality – formless Brahman.” Another concept found in Hindu Puranas is Parakaya Pravesham, which is the belief in leaving one’s body for a time and entering another person’s body. Besides being the premise behind the entire movie with Jake living out his life vicariously through his avatar, this also happens when the tribe tries transfer the body of the female scientist, Grace, into a Na’vi body. Later Jake does the same thing towards the end of the movie.
There is also a “born again" theme, which is done for boys in India and is considered as second birth, which is brought out when the Na’vi have Jake do a certain ritual truly to earn his place among the people. I believe this movie speaks very much to the western spiritualism worldview and is very appealing and popular in our western culture today when so many people are in search of peace and harmony. In an article published in Science Fiction called “Avatar: Unveiling Its Stunning Hidden Messages,” Chan Lee Peng writes, “No matter how people think negatively about Avatar, I see Avatar differently as it carries positive and strong messages to the world. Interestingly, Avatar has touched the sensitivity side of life in terms of destruction versus healing, war versus peace, simple versus complexity, isolation versus connection, good versus evil and balance versus imbalance.”
Effects on Culture
Avatar is a live-action movie, intensified when watched in 3D. It is vividly lifelike with its amazing visual effects. The director even said in an interview, “my challenge as director is to make it as real as possible for them. And their challenge as an actor is to imbed it with a sense of emotional veracity.” He did exceptional job! Many people want movies to come alive—maybe that is why 3D is so popular. But with a make-believe world that seems so lifelike and live-able, many people are leave the theater jolted back to reality. I read online that “Movie-goers have admitted being plagued by depression and suicidal thoughts at not being able to visit the planet Pandora.” This depression has been labeled the “Avatar Blues.” I also read that “fans have flooded the internet with confused feelings. On the site Avatar Forums, the topic ‘Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible’ has more than 1,000 posts.” One user wrote, “when I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed grey. It just seems so meaningless.” Another person said, “I still don’t really see any reason to keep doing things at all. I live in a dying world.” In the movie, Earth’s resources have been depleting and Earth is dying. Pandora, on the other hand, is a new, beautiful, exotic planet inhabited by blue aliens. Viewers are drawn into this fantasy world, with its strange yet beautiful plants and creatures, yet at the end they are left back in their theater seats with the make-believe world vanishing in front of them as the movie credits roll. Mike Stoklasa, is an independent filmmaker of the movie production company RedLetterMedia in Milwaukee, commented that the director made a “really effective film that really pulls on the audience’s heart strings, using almost every trick in the book. People even want to be commit suicide to be reincarnated as a Nav’i.”
The 3D aspect of this movie makes this fantasy world more enticing and appealing. It transports the viewer onto the planet itself. However once the moviegoer takes off the 3D glasses there is a disconnection. It is like that for some girls who watch a Romance movie and escape to that fantasy world but then are hit with reality when it is over and are sad because that life isn’t or can’t come true. Many say they are depressed after watching movies but people are forced to look at that unrealistic life and revaluate what is important in life. One psychologist said a lot of these people who are depressed over Avatar are lonely to begin with, so seeing Avatar touches elements of their depression, seeking to a community of other people who feel the same way. This depression is a widespread phenomenon, with thousands of posts on one fan forum. People are sucked into this “perfect” world and don’t see how manipulative and simple the story really is. The bad guys are made out to be less then human with little depth so the viewer will build up dislike or even hatred for them. It was ironic that real scientists were actually involved in helping to design the Navi’ to make them more appealing and perfect to the viewers. The Na’vi are presented as peaceful people who are beautiful, though almost fatally-naïve about their intruders. They were designed with Disney eyes because they are more inviting, show honesty and vulnerability and they also mix in an animal element like a nose similar to a cat’s or dog’s because people are drawn to those creatures and they represent innocence. The world of Pandora is embellished with vibrant colors and contrast and exotic creatures and plants. By contrast, the earthling military appears to be dull, lifeless, cold, and profane. It strategically draws audiences to long for the world that isn’t, desiring to trade their earthly experience with a magical existence in Pandora. We know from Greek mythology the dangers that are posed by Pandora and her magical box. The message of this movie may also be similarly enticing yet deceiving!